Thursday, May 22, 2014

Is Reslience the new Sustainability?

When I was in graduate school in Washington DC, I focused practical study for my Philosophy and Social Policy degree on environmental ethics and the ethics of international development. 

Without explicitly dating myself, I’ll tell you that this was around the time of the Rio Earth Summit, and sustainability was the new buzzword. I watched as the concept of sustainability became ‘sustainable development’. I saw the term ‘unpacked’ as philosophers like to say, in journal articles and report frameworks. Eventually sustainable development was institutionalized and formalized into organizational department names, job titles and new academic journals. 

Sustainability still makes sense to me today as a useful mental framework, in the basic structure I learned back then. Sustainable development is about meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability to meet needs in the future. Three kinds of needs must be met in a complementary way: economics, environment and society.  

More recently, I notice people using the word sustainability in a way that implies the word ‘self-‘ in front of sustainable; a program or development intervention is called sustainable if it can perpetuate itself without continued external support. It keeps itself going through permanent behavior change or natural incentives to generate necessary resources. Teaching a woman to fish to so she can feed herself and her family into the future would be considered sustainable. Giving her fish might no longer be considered truly sustainable, even if doing so causes no harm to future economic, environmental or social goods. 

In other words, sustainable development has to do more than simply avoid depleting the economic, environmental and social resources of the far future. That’s a given. Today, sustainable programs are expected to generate their own resources (at least eventually) to maintain activities and benefits today in present or near future. 

It’s a higher standard and probably appropriate in many cases. It implies a greater degree of engagement and responsibility from those designing and implementing the program, including those being helped. The fisher must see continued value in fishing for herself, or the program fails to be sustainable. 

So now what about resilience? 

I wonder if it is on the same trajectory as sustainability. The international conferences and programmatic categories are emerging already. There have been rich discussions of what the concept means for many months now. Will organizational and job title changes follow? How is it changing what we see, what we value in policy and how we plan and implement development programs for the future? 

Lawrence Haddad thoughtfully raises a number of important points about resilience as a ‘mobilizing metaphor.’ He concludes:
Much of our current development thinking was developed in the last half of the 20th century--in a world very different from today.   Even if resilience has no unique conceptual contribution (and for me the jury is still out), it is clearly resonating with many different stakeholders.
Perhaps the greatest contribution of resilience will be to create the space for new ideas to flourish and help us move development, food security and nutrition more decisively from the 20th to the 21st century. Time will tell.

My Inner Philosopher looks forward to seeing what happens next!

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